Lichtenstein: Devils Blow Head Coaching Search With Lindy Ruff Hire

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E
By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

Based on the reported candidates the Devils were considering for their permanent head coaching job, they seemed to have had the pick of the litter.

According to NHL.com’s Kevin Weekes, they’re going with the runt.

Weekes tweeted on Wednesday night that New Jersey will soon be naming Rangers assistant Lindy Ruff to replace Alain Nasreddine, the Devils’ interim coach following John Hynes’ dismissal in December, behind its bench. In addition, Weekes reported that Tom Fitzgerald will have his interim tag removed in front of his general manager title.

The Fitzgerald news wasn’t surprising, maybe even welcome. As prior GM Ray Shero’s right-hand man since 2006 in Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald accumulated the experience to have been considered for several NHL top jobs. That he competently navigated the market leading up to the trade deadline after Shero was axed by Devils owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer in January may have unlocked any missing evidence that Fitzgerald was right for this gig.

As for Ruff, this is a blown call.

My WFAN colleague Sean Hartnett recently laid out the reasons in advance as to why the Rangers’ potential loss would ultimately prove to be a Devils’ loss.

In Ruff’s three seasons where he was allegedly in charge of team defense, the Rangers were one of the league’s most porous teams, placing 27th in goals allowed per game despite the presence of All Star netminder Henrik Lundqvist. The Blueshirts’ penalty killing unit’s effectiveness, another Ruff responsibility, ranked 23rd.  

Of course, the Devils’ largest deficiencies in recent seasons have been in their own end. Their defensemen have been maddeningly inconsistent in both positioning and in the fundamentals necessary to end plays. The group is mostly comprised of young players, the kind who Rangers fans complained did not fare well under Ruff’s tutelage.

If, as Hartnett alleges, Ruff struggled with fitting his schemes to fit the modern-day puck-movers at the position, what will that mean for the development of undersized guys like Will Butcher and Ty Smith?  

If this were 2001, following a four-year postseason run in Buffalo that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, hiring Ruff would have made some sense. Nearly 20 years later, considering his teams have missed the playoffs nine times in 15 seasons as a head coach and all three as an assistant (including 2019-20, since the Rangers, despite being added to the qualifying round, were 11th in the Eastern Conference in points percentage when the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic), this is a head-scratcher.

It's not like Harris and Blitzer didn’t do any homework. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, the Devils interviewed at least eight candidates, including Nasreddine and, my preferred choice, former Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. Even Peter Laviolette, who has a history of flaming out after hot starts in his four prior engagements, would have been the better option.

Fitzgerald and Ruff did overlap for four seasons in Florida in the mid-1990s—Fitzgerald as a player and Ruff as an assistant coach. Could that have really tipped the scales?

In the end, this is a Harris/Blitzer production. That the Devils had Ruff ahead of a coach like Gallant who took an expansion team to the Cup Final only two seasons ago puts their owners right in line with other area know-nothings like the Jets' Christopher Johnson.   

The Devils had an opportunity to revamp a franchise that has reached one playoff series in eight seasons by bringing in new blood. Instead, with Fitzgerald and Ruff, it’s same-old. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

Follow WFAN on Social MediaTwitter  |  Facebook  |  Instagram  |  YouTube